Business and Ethics? - A Study of a Dichotomy

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School of Business | Doctoral thesis (article-based)
Degree programme
61 + app. 139
Aalto University publication series DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS, 117/2021
Human life and well-being depend on the wealth creation of business – the production and trade of goods and services. Thus, one would think that most business ethicists and business school academics would stress business' benevolent nature. Alas, that is not the case. Instead, contemporary business ethics generally assumes that businesspeople are inclined to be dishonest and dangerous. Hence, many business ethicists see the urgent need for morally restraining their "greed." The result is a business ethics aimed at curbing the means and end of business. In this doctoral dissertation, I reveal a problematic fact about current business ethics on the whole. I show that its foundation, conventional altruistic ethics, is essentially opposed to the egoistic profit motive, i.e., the commercial heart of business. Further, I account for various aspects of this tension. Specifically, I identify the clash between the moral foundation of much of contemporary business ethics and the chief purpose of business through a comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the literature. I discuss the cause and significance of the antithetical relation between conventional, non-egoistic ethics and business. Moreover, I consider the critical ramifications of this conflict for business ethics and business practice.  In the first essay, I argue on the basis of a thorough examination of thirty relevant business ethics texts that there is an anti-business bias in contemporary business ethics. I show that many business ethicists hold the standard view that to be moral is to be unselfish, and vice versa, wherefore they feel there is a conflict between ethics and self-interest. By extension, they doubt the inherently selfish profit motive and, accordingly, business and businesspeople. In the second essay, I conduct an in-depth study of mainstream moral theories. Mainly relying on the seminal work of the most influential moral figures and philosophers and the business ethics literature, I prove that the conventional morality of altruism is inherently incompatible with the egoistic profit motive. Thus, from the bottom up, this essay explains the origin and internal logic of the standard view of business ethics as "oxymoronic." In the third and final essay, I conscientiously review the arguments in the original corporate social responsibility (CSR) literature, and thereby show how almost every modern academic conceptualization of CSR derives from and is an expression of the principle of collectivism. As explained in the essay, the principle of collectivism is merely a popular take of the morality of altruism, i.e., the morality of self-sacrifice. Thus, the third essay ties into the theme of the two first essays; together the three pieces form a logical unity. This dissertation is a serious exercise in philosophical detection. As such, it reveals the deep and wide polarity between contemporary business ethics and the profit-oriented nature of business itself. Backed by overwhelming evidence, it contributes with a profound new interpretation concerning mainstream business ethics' source, essence, and meaning.
Supervising professor
Häyry, Matti, Prof., Aalto University, Department of Management Studies, Finland
business ethics, morality, profit motive, egoism, altruism, corporate social responsibility, collectivism
Other note
  • [Publication 1]: Svanberg, Marja; Svanberg, Carl. The anti-egoist assumptions in business ethics and its anti-business manifestations. Submitted to the journal Academy of Management Review in the year 2021
  • [Publication 2]: Svanberg, Marja; Svanberg, Carl. 2021. Is there such a thing as a good profit? Taking conventional ethics seriously. Philosophia: Philosophical Quarterly of Israel.
    Full text in Acris/Aaltodoc:
    DOI: 10.1007/s11406-020-00310-6 View at publisher
  • [Publication 3]: Svanberg, Marja. Corporate social responsibility as collectivism. Unpublished essay